In its first interior project, Studio Practice – a Montreal-Toronto start-up –celebrates the raw power of Moshe Safdie’s iconic Habitat 67.
For hard-core minimalists, a renovation can entail more demolition than construction. And for the most officious heritage hawks, changing the interior of an iconic building – in this case, Moshe Safdie’s enduring Habitat 67 – is an affront to culture. Yet one remodelled unit within the Montreal behemoth merges old and new, with stunning results. The architect simply peeled away several layers of previous work and elevated the apartment’s unassailable qualities: its Lego-like shape, and its location on a jetty in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.
Marie-Pierre Auger-Bellavance, who is part of Studio Practice, a loose collective of four designers spread out between Montreal and Toronto, is no stranger to the building. In 2004, she won the Prix de la fondation Habitat 67 for a housing proposal she designed while a master’s student at the Université de Montréal. This is her first realized project with the newly created firm, as well as her own home. Exposing as much of the original structure as possible became her principal trope, and her most gregarious act was to raze the interior walls. The only solid divisions are for two private spaces: an office beside the kitchen; and a shower at grade, next to the bedroom.
When Safdie envisioned Habitat, he intended the 158-unit complex to eventually contain 1,000 households. A radical prototype when it opened in 1967, in honour of Canada’s centennial, it was an early demonstration of how prefabrication techniques could be applied to high-density residential construction. To this day, his multi-faceted concept remains far fetched. No developer has replicated it, due to the prohibitive price of construction; and the operating costs include higher than average heating bills. Its symbolism has become chiefly monumental, akin to the Statue of Liberty’s.
While the envelope is heritage protected (as are two interiors, including Safdie’s own penthouse suite), many units have undergone rather ghastly renovations. What’s remarkable about H67 is Auger-Bellavance’s use of the apartment’s existing shape. “The whole project is cubes,” she says of the interior’s three volumes, which she refers to as the Entrance Cube, the Day Cube and the Night Cube. “You have two on one level that form an L shape, then a third, which sits on top.”
The Entrance Cube is on the second level. She demolished part of the flooring to reveal a void into the Day Cube below, an opening that was part of the original plan. From the entry’s landing, a catwalk with glass railings leads to a living room defined by a wall-sized bookcase. Visitors with vertigo beware: the offset living room overhangs an eight-storey void.
A flight of floating stairs with black steel treads leads down to the Day Cube, ostensibly a kitchen-dining area defined by a central island made of white Corian. A glass cooktop stands at one end, and four white bar stools occupy the other. Against the perimeter, between two sliding doors leading to a generous terrace, Auger-Bellavance finished the far wall with black high-gloss cabinetry and a pop of yellow for the countertop. “I don’t like to pretend, so here it’s clear that we did something. It’s obvious,” she says of straying from the established palette of mostly grey, black and white, and of her affinity for brutalism.
At the Day Cube’s far end, an enclosed office clad in tinted glass picks up the darker tones of the exposed concrete and the cabinetry. Adjacent to the office is the Night Cube, the only bedroom, which contains an ensuite bathroom. After the 18-month renovation, Auger-Bellavance and her husband have finally moved in. Now, holding their baby and with a second child on the way, she seems wistful about the new space. “When we designed this, we weren’t supposed to have this little boy,” she says. “It’s really meant for a couple who want to do a lot of entertaining.”